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Imagine the “worst” student.

Comes late with a coffee and muffin, headphones on, only taking them off a single ear after getting good and situated. Doesn’t take notes, looks at phone constantly, turns in substandard work and then even has the gall to kvetch about the substandard grades which, really, are a gift to begin with.

Imagine also that this student isn’t living with a hidden disability, such as depression, which makes it difficult to get out of bed many days, let alone to class, or an anxiety disorder where listening to music through the headphones is a coping mechanism.[1]

In this case, we know for certain that this student has every advantage, and nonetheless, chooses some combination of disengagement, and transactional thinking, where the instructor is their educational customer service representative.

Do we hate this student? Are they my enemy?

I have felt hatred for this student. Wasting their time and my time, and worse, their colleagues’ time.

But hating this student involves hating myself because while I was not quite this bad, I carried a certain resemblance. I never complained about grades because I didn’t care about them, but I would, on occasion, read the newspaper in the back of a classroom during class. This was in classes with mandatory attendance, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered going.

I don’t even think I thought I was being rude at the time. I wasn’t bothering anyone else. I was adhering to the policy that mandated attendance, but not “participation.” Of course it was rude, and the fact that I was no rebel, and actually a pretty respectful person makes me even more curious about my own behavior.

On reflection, I think I had the impression that in that classroom space, I didn’t matter, my presence (despite it being mandated) didn’t change what was going to happen one way or another.

When faculty publicly lament about their entitled or indifferent students I have two thoughts. One, I wonder where all these students are going to school because I see so few of them, and two, for those who do seem to fit the bill, what’s going on underneath those surfaces?

I wonder if they’re feeling something akin to what I remember about school, namely that it (school) didn’t matter, and that I had a very limited place inside of it.

I was re-listening to an episode of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast from 2015 with Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, and he spoke of a strain of instruction where we teach, “as if we were God,” where “we’re handing down truths as if to be memorized.” 

This is how I often felt in college. The struggle for me was that I had little interest in those faiths and few connections with those preachers. Yes, some of this was because of my own immaturity, maybe a lot of it was due to my immaturity, but certainly some of it was due to the structure and systems of school. I wasn’t impossible to motivate or engage, but I had limited belief that such things were likely to happen in a classroom, and certainly wouldn’t be engendered by a Blue Book essay, feverishly scribbled during midterm or final.

School was simply a gauntlet to be run. Some interesting things might happen, but they were relatively rare, and often incidental.

In the podcast, Ken Bain reminds us of a truth, that our knowledge is provisional, open to reconsideration, always. We are not gods. Our “truths” may shift. This has been abundantly the case for my own teaching. I could list a dozen different things I would’ve once considered sacrosanct that I’ve abandoned almost entirely: reading quizzes, mandatory attendance, punishing late assignments, and now most recently, traditional grading.

Each of these things has been gradual, one small move at a time, but with hindsight I can see an impulse to push more and more responsibility onto students for their own learning. I wanted to increase the rigor without doubling down on the “sheriff” aspects of the job. I’ve never been comfortable exercising the authority that can come with the position of instructor because while I hold onto plenty of convictions at any given time, I’ve had those convictions shift often enough that I am always on the lookout for indicators that I might be wrong.

Above all, I was looking for a framework for my teaching that felt authentic so I could present it with sincerity.

Bain and Teaching in Higher Ed podcast host Bonni Stachowiak discuss how moving away from a god-like view of instruction requires an embrace of “vulnerability.” This is a difficult thing in academia. If school is a gauntlet for students, it’s the same for faculty, particularly pre-tenure.

For contingent faculty, you’re aware of  your vulnerability every moment of the day. We don’t have much choice but to live with it, but embracing it too closely is to either invite one’s own demise or undermine one’s commitment to quality instruction. Sticking one’s neck out on a semester-to-semester contract is not advisable. Systems that allow for dismissal without cause, or solely on the basis of student evaluations will inevitably hamper one’s ability to experiment with the kind of vulnerability that Bain and Stachowiak discuss.

The only way one can feel safe with admitting vulnerability is if we don’t fear punishment of those to whom we’ve made ourselves vulnerable.[2]

Unfortunately, vulnerability of any kind tends to be punished within our schooling systems. Students especially have been steeped in a culture where a pretty narrow definition of achievement (grades), is the primary currency. We all know that good grades are not necessarily coupled with learning, and in fact, getting a good grade may require one to reject a path of deep challenge in favor of a safer route.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised when students treat school as a transaction when we’ve conditioned them to believe this.

The thing is, vulnerability – or “openness,” which is how I'd rather frame it – is extraordinarily important to learning. But being open requires trust, and through trust, deeper, more solid relationships can form.

“Transparency” is now my guiding value for my personal pedagogy because it is the best way for me to both be open and signal to students that it is okay for them to be open in return. It helps me build a space that is less likely to result in the alienation that I experienced as a college student, and that I believe my hypothetical slacker is likely experiencing.

As frustrated as those students make me, I remind myself that it’s likely we’re much more alike than we think, and that if there’s an “enemy” it’s not each other.

They are alienated. I am frustrated. If we can admit that to each other, maybe there’s a way forward.




[1] I cringe at a memory when I, innocently, asked a student “What’s up with the headphones all the time?” causing other student heads to swivel and stare at the student for a few moments before moving on.  After class, the student tearfully told me of their living with anxiety and that they listened to white noise in one ear as a way to stay focused.

[2] In my case, I think I’ve been very lucky to find myself in situation where I had the space to experiment, first at Virginia Tech where I was part of a team teaching a first year course where we often collaborated on teaching ideas, and then at Clemson, where my teaching thrived under a system of benign neglect. Being off the tenure track allowed me to largely escape scrutiny. This is not to say I ever thought I was doing anything wrong, but even something small like no longer mandating attendance, might’ve been looked down on by some colleagues if I was under the microscope of the tenure process.

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